Thursday, July 31, 2008
(9:53 AM) | Adam Kotsko:
On the old saw, "I'd hate to see how you treat your students"Academics often hear this complaint from online correspondents who feel their opinions are not being sufficiently respected. The correspondent is thankfully able to handle the abuse with aplomb; the same cannot be expected of vulnerable undergraduates. (The sinister undertone: the academic should likely be barred from teaching.)
What the correspondent is missing here is that a teaching situation is fundamentally different from a lively debate among peers. In the former situation, one expects ignorance, cliched opinions, faulty reasoning -- that's why the students need to be in class, after all. In the latter situation, no matter how often this expectation is frustrated, one also expects that voluntary participants in, say, a political debate will have some type of knowledge, some consciousness of what types of arguments are common and which are novel, etc.
Most often, of course, they do not. Instead, they simply wish to vent their political impulses in much the same way they would vent to a close friend about a fight with their spouse or significant other -- and indeed, they appear to have as much emotion invested in their ignorant, cliched opinions as they would in such a fight.
An academic in such a situation is in a double-bind. On the one hand, if they genuinely treat the person as a peer -- that is, if they subject their arguments to sharp criticism and demand facts -- they will be dismissed as moral monsters who like to torture 19-year-old business majors. On the other hand, if they treat the person like the ignoramus in need of instruction that they are, then the academic is a patronizing elitist: "You think you're so smart -- well, all you've got is three letters beyond your name! Up there in your ivory tower, you haven't gained the rich experience in 'real life' that I have attained in my work as an insurance adjuster and reader of right-wing blogs!"
In short, whatever the virtues of "book smarts," they will inevitably be shouted down by "street smarts."